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Why Gossip and Fashion really are Matters of Life and Death.


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Why do women find it more important than men to be in on the latest fashion trends? It couldn't be just to look nice for the opposite sex, because most men hardly notice it. I believe the reason lies in our evolutionary background.


We evolved as hunter-gatherers. With men mostly hunting, and women mostly gathering. Hunting requires plenty of skill, obviously. Compared to hunting, gathering seems a pretty simple task. What I want to show is that the occupation of gathering wild fruits and vegetables is far from simple. It is a highly information intensive occupation.


A tree full of fruits is a temporary store of valuables you encounter by chance. The female that finds it comes home with enough fruits for her family, and one important bit of information. Where others can find wat she has.


Who should she share that information with? In her best interest, she should share it with someone who will return the favour another day. So she can go and get fruits and vegetables and feed her family another time. The best person to share that with is the one that always seems to be in on the latest finds. She is the most likely to be able to let you in on the next bargain to be had.


This is why it is important as a woman to always show you are in on the latest finds. It will get others to share the information on their finds with you, which in the end is what gets you that regular stream of fruits and vegetables you and your children need.


Gossip has always been a good way to show off the quality of your information network. Fashion is a present-day signal between women intended to sort the ones in the know, from the ones out of it. Of course, fashion wouldn't have been an efficient signal before the introduction of easily changeable, mass produced clothing. But is is now. And clothing and gossip have more uses, but there is a seperate interest to the gatherer mind to signal being up to date.


Female status is geared towards showing you are close to the information through signals like fashion and gossip, because gathering is all about getting the information in time. Women still dedicate a lot of effort to keeping up with the latest finds, because once it really was a matter of life and death.



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Interesting post, Adriaan - but please don't use Hypo to generate traffic to your blog.


As to your post, I doubt if the most successful gatherers would share their secrets. I guess its much more probable that the most successfull ones will not tell the rest where they found the nuts and berries.


Also, by looking at the great apes, both hunting and gathering is done in troops. This behaviour will make it nigh impossible for any lucky discoverer of a berry tree to keep that lucky fact a secret - if a girl stumbles on an apple tree, she's immediately busted, cause all her sistahs are there already.

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Do women nowadays go shopping in troops? They go alone or with two or three. I wouldn't assume that to be different then, no matter what the other great apes are doing. They hang in trees, we don't. We walked the edges of the savannah.


The successful gatherer would not give the information away for free, that is the point. But when she has found more than she needs, she has to make the most of what she left at the site. There is still a tree with fruits that will be gone before she managed to finish what she took for her own family.


To make the most of that, you give the information to the person most likely to be able to return the favour to you. So you can trade the information for another meal in the future. Looking like you would be 'up to date' with the latest finds is important when you make your living from gathering, it gets other gatherers to trust their finds with you.


Gossip and following fashion trends make you look up to date nowadays. A gatherer just loves it. And that is a good enough explanation for the behaviour in the present world. To understand why a gatherer would evolve that love, you need to go back to the environment where it evolved..

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I think you might be making a bit of a leap here.


More likely is the theory that fashion and trend-following in general is simply a mechanism for social acceptance, and "dollying up" is an attempt at standing out from the rest of the girls when the boys come a-cruisin'. The boys, of course, settle their dominance ranking a bit more violently than plastering make-up on their faces - they beat each other to a pulp in their attempts to become the "Alpha Male". And the strongest male has access to the most beautiful girls and beats the other guys who might attempt a quickie with his girls.


So, the girl wanting to pair the strongest genes with hers has the best chance if she's the prettiest.


But what determines what "pretty" is?


"Pretty" is such an arbitrary term (both for males and females), that the only queues females have to work off in this regard, is to see what the most popular women look like. In a tribe of a few hundred humans, the women would theoretically try to emulate the Alpha female in her appearance and behaviour, seeing as it brought her some success; she is mating with the Alpha Male, after all.


In modern society, where there are millions of humans sharing the same geographical area, who'd be the "Alpha Female"? Who, amongst females, determines and dictates to the rest what the standards of "prettiness" is?


Easy. Today, fashion trends are determined by supermodels and film stars. If Nicole Kidman starts wearing a brass gong on her forehead, the rest of the fashion world will follow suit - not because of the intrinsic beauty of a gong on your head (there is none), but because Nicole Kidman is popular, and the popular chicks get to mate with the strong buff guys - ensuring a string of beautiful and strong kids in their wake.


Fashion trends have nothining to do with berries - it has everything to do with sex.

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You are assuming the ancient world is all different from today's world. The progress over the past few thousand years is due to the brain's 'parallel processing' with other brains. You can benefit from the thoughts of the people around you and before you through writing, bookprinting and now internet. It isn't due to much change in our brain, in terms of hardware.


So talking about alpha male and things like that when you are talking about humans is nonsense now, and it most likely would be nonsense then. Female choice through hidden ovulation makes it impossible to control all the female mating opportunities. You have to be suspicious when your explanation hinges on assumptions that don't hold true in today's world. The biggest rugby player can't just walk up to another guy and expect to get his girl. That wouldn't work now, that most likely wouldn't work then.


Clothes can signal you belong to a certain group, and they can make you look better by hiding other signals like being hopelessly unfit. But there is a separate interest in 'looking up to date'. Clothes as a signal to look up to date would not have been possible before the introduction of easily changeable mass produced clothes. But it is a very efficient signal now, it shows all the time. (Like cars wouldn't be a status symbol between men before 1900.)


Gossip does the same thing. There can be value in knowing someone can't be trusted. But there is a separate interest to the gatherer in being first in spreading the news. That makes you look good in terms of your information network.


When I talk about fashion I mean the change in trends for the sake of changing trend. Colour, dress lengths, fabrics, etc. Or trends in the latest handbag and shoes, whether cheap or expensive. Few guys notice that, even less care. So it can't be about mating. It is a signal between females meant to sort the ones in the know from the ones out of it. Fashion has to start somewhere so there is definitely a vacancy for a famous designer, or a celebrity. The common denominator starting what everyone can know about sooner or later.


It is a leap, but only because present ideas are so far off the mark. Gathering food is information intensive, it follows from that.

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I don't know about men not being fashion conscious... Why do so many men insist on driving expensive SUVs from home to work when clapped-out oldsmobiles would do equally well? Why don't more male executives bond on the bowls green rather than the golf course? Why are so many young males, like their female counterparts, obsessed with brand name clothes?

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You have to try to separate the myriad of signals something as simple as clothing can carry. Wealth, availability, trendiness, group affiliation, authority, religion, etc. So signals can combine. But looking trendy is a signal that comes across to many other women for sure.


Go to your news stand and look at the information people are willing to pay for. Fashion and gossip dominate the female section, not the male section. That is not to say all women are interested in it or that they are not interested in other things or that men are not interested in fashion etc. But for a gatherer, showing that you know about the latest is not a waste of time at all. You didn't evolve to waste time, they are 'loves' that help feed you.


And don't fall into the trap of psychology. They have been focussing on trying to explain the abnormal. Without having a clue what it is that makes you normal. It's the wrong perspective. Much like trying to explain the movements of the planets in the sky from the viewpoint of the earth. It is possible and it was done, but it is way to complicated. Once you change to the correct model things become simple, like Galileo showed in astronomy.


To explain behaviours in the present world, saying that someone loves doing it or hates doing it is a good enough explanation. But then you have to go back to the environment where we evolved to understand why that love or hate could evolve. A girl putting on the latest pants may feel great looking at herself in the mirror. And maybe she loves chatting to a girlfriend on the phone for hours about everything and everyone. You know why that love could evolve.


You can assume that women hunted and men gathered too. So they will share plenty of the motivations typical to a hunter or a gatherer (see my post on sports and career). But in general, gathering fits women better, hunting fits men better.


10.000 years is very little for evolution to make big changes in an organisms plan. The enormous progress you see around you is due to people combining brain power ever more efficiently. 'Parallel processing through a language interface', you now benefit from the thoughts of people before and around you. But that doesn't mean the hardware of the individual brain changed. We use a big educated brain to follow our ancient motivations, and maybe sometimes that goes wrong, see my other post.

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What seperates us from the cave dwellers of thousands of years ago, is nothing biological - a modern-day baby born into a cave-dweller environment will assume it as the natural order of things, and will fit perfectly into it, not knowing any better. Biologically speaking, we're one and the same.


What seperates us from our cave-dwelling ancestors is simply "culture". Our cultures differ, and what you refer to as "parallel processing" is merely a facet thereof.


But in reaching your ultimate point that fashion has to do with the private knowledge of food resources is big leap. Humans of the ancient cave-dwelling variety, do NOT forage alone. Modern-day examples, including the bushmen of the Kalahari, testifies to that fact. It's simply dangerous to wander off alone in an environment where large predators or small, poisonous insects, can mean your end. Primitive societies where the womenfolk have a tendency to wander off by themselves in search of food, and when that food is found to keep the knowledge thereof a secret, will not flourish compared to other societies where a more co-operative approach is taken to gathering resources.


Nope - in the final analysis, the rabid following of fashion trends is a subconscious expression that has everything to do with sex and successful copulation with desirable males, and very little to do with berries and fruits.

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Maybe you wouldn't forage on your own all the time, but you sure don't walk with everyone either. And I think you are exaggerating the danger of wandering through an area you know very well. If there are lions about, who you gonna call? You get your bravest friends to throw stones at them to get rid of them.


Yes, clothes can make you look good to the other sex and that is very important. But looking up to date matters too. Gossip and a large part of fashion is about signalling that between women. Men just don't care or know about the latest trend in handbags or shoes, women do (stereotyping alert!). Those are multibillion dollar industries you can't assume are just a waste of effort or some 'subconcious expression' that defies logic.


We are talking about the survival of genes here, small consistent differences in individual survival rates are enough. Looking up to date helped the gatherer.

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...Primitive societies where the womenfolk have a tendency to wander off by themselves... will not flourish...


I agree, I would even say that wandering off alone was such a bad idea, that it is one of the most powerful reasons why we evolved into social animals who love to gossip in the first place.

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There are still plenty of primitive peoples around where the women walk in small groups for many hours through dangerous territory to get water or food. Yes, it may be dangerous, but feeding your children is also very important.


What would be optimal. Walking around with all women wouldn't be very smart. You will find much less. Walking alone all the time may be dangerous. The optimum will be somewhere in between.


Which means many women will have to hear about a limited find from others. Which means a good social network matters. And signalling that you have a good social network matters because that is what gets others to let you in on their information.

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Certainly a good social network matters, and having a good social network is important, but the following study does not support that these characteristics evolved as a consequence of foraging and sharing...



Foragers who do not practice food storage might adapt to fluctuating food supplies by sharing surplus resources in times of plenty with the expectation of receiving in times of shortfall. In this paper, we derive a number of predictions from this perspective, which we term the risk reduction reciprocity (RRR) model, and test these with ethnographic data on foraging (fishing, shellfish collecting, and turtle hunting) among the Meriam (Torres Strait, Australia). While the size of a harvest strongly predicts that a portion will be shared beyond the household of the acquirer, the effects of key measures of foraging risk (e.g., failure rate) are comparatively weak: Harvests from high-risk hunt types are usually shared more often than those from low-risk hunt types in the same macropatch, but increases in risk overall do not accurately predict increases in the probability of sharing. In addition, free-riders (those who take shares but do not reciprocate) are not discriminated against, those who share more often and more generously do not predictably receive more, and most sharing relationships between households (over 80%) involve one-way flows.




This seems to suggest that food sharing behaviors are more a consequence of social evolution, ie; altruistic behavior which improves survivability of the group.

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